Through the Trifocals

Illinisports returns with a new column, and a new column title, <i>Through the Trifocals.</i> In this latest column, Illinisports discusses the difficulties of winning on the road in conference play. Many fans have a laissez faire attitude about playing on the road, but Illinisports discusses the difficulties teams go through in foreign environments like buses, airplanes, hotel rooms, and the stadium itself.

Illinois is in the midst of its most important and perhaps hardest stretch of the season. Playing for a Big 10 Championship, and needing to win out, we have four of our last five games on the road. For those who have never experienced the rigors of playing on the road, let me assure you that any win on the road is a great win.

It amazes me how many fans become upset with the Illini when we don't perform our best in road games. And the Penn State game is a perfect example. Fans point out our 43 point victory at home against the Nittany Lions as proof of PSU's impotence. When we won by only eight and not at least 20, and when some of our players had off games, it is treated like both a loss and a public embarrassment. Let's consider all the variables that conspire to inhibit effective road play.

First of all, I defy anyone to be at their absolute best in foreign surroundings right after riding or flying to the event. Travel wears heavily on a basketball team, for many reasons. Players are forced to live out of suitcases. They spend much boring and tiring time in airports, buses, taxis, and hotel lobbies. They have to fit their long legs into spaces (both during travel and in their hotel rooms) more suitable for much shorter people.

They are travelling during the winter months, so complications such as air turbulence while flying, mechanical problems causing unplanned delays, and severe weather forcing a transfer to buses or other slower but safer accommodations are all possible. Freshmen and upperclassmen alike can be uncomfortable and nervous travelling, even if they have been to these places before. Weather and mechanical problems can be downright scary and a certain distraction from the "zone" necessary for optimum victory.

The players are herded from place to place with no control over their lives. They may have curfews and other restrictions on movement, so their free time might be spent lounging in hotel lobbies, watching TV in their rooms or studying (school work, including missed assignments and exams, is on their minds all the time). Anyone who has done this can attest to the energy drain that is possible while lounging all day with nothing to do before a night game. Coaches divide up the players' times with meetings and walk-throughs, but the meetings can be just as tiring (they can be downright miserable if you are having a losing season). And all the while, they are in new and potentially strange surroundings without their normal support group.

Even if the players get to the arena awake and energized, it is simply not the same as playing in the Assembly Hall in front of 16,000 fans. It cannot be overstated how much a team benefits from playing in front of a large contingent of supportive fans. The fans can literally share some of their personal energy with the team, giving it uplifting increases in energy when it needs it most (of course, booing brings a team down the same way). It is exceedingly difficult for any team to manufacture on its own the same kind and quantity of energy on the road that its fans provide it at home.

And the players really need to manufacture even more energy than that since it is now commonplace for opposing fans to organize for the purpose of destroying a visiting team's confidence level. By the end of the Big 10 season, fans at all eleven universities know every potential button to push to weaken the resolve of individual players. If they can get into someone's mind, they will.

Anyone who saw Kendall Gill shoot an airball at Iowa during his sophomore year knows how the fans' subsequent torment destroyed his shooting confidence for the rest of that season. One can argue that players are more accustomed to the grief now than back then, and one can proclaim that players who can't cope don't deserve to play. But you can't put all the players on the bench. If they aren't playing with confidence, their chances of success are slim at best.

There is a direct correlation between our confidence level and the ability to play relaxed. The more confident we are, the more familiar we are with the situation at hand, the better we play. This is because our muscles relax, allowing better flexibility, more quickness of movement, and more consistent effort. In contrast, anything that increases tension or reduces confidence has the opposite effect. Rich McBride and Brian Randle will eventually be great players for us, but their lack of immediate success has adversely effected their confidence level, and they are struggling right now.

Anyone who has played golf knows that the ball goes farther and straighter if you don't try to force it to go far and straight but simply relax and allow things to happen naturally. This same principle applies to every situation in which the body is needed to function at peak efficiency. But just try to relax when you are standing over an important putt or need to hit a great drive or approach shot. Those who hit the shots properly are those who are relaxed and confident.

Unfortunately, muscles love to tighten up for a road game. Two recent examples of Illini playing with tight muscles are the Providence and Northwestern games. We seemed to be running with cement shoes. If anything, I believe we wanted these games too badly, and it caused inner tension. We were slow to every loose ball, a millisecond late moving our feet on defense, and hesitant to attack offensively. These behaviors are typical of tight bodies.

Our opponents all have specific incentives to play well against us. Penn State is an excellent example of a team that utilized a memory of its game at the Assembly Hall to motivate a more inspired effort at home. While we were on a roll that may have been a season highlight, they were playing the worst game of their season. They embarrassed themselves in Champaign, and they wanted to reverse that on ESPN. After all, all teams want to be seen playing well on TV, and Penn State knew it was not as bad as it appeared when they played us the first time. A defeat of powerhouse Illinois would have given them a great boost of confidence that would help their recruiting and preparation for next season.

I for one was not surprised that Marlon Smith shot so well in the second game after going 1-17 the first time. He is too good a player to not use the first game as motivation for the second. After shooting 21% as a team in C-U, Penn State was highly motivated to shoot better last Saturday. And their coaches had the benefit of lessons learned that game plus an evaluation of Illinois' first 22 games to find new strategies to use for the second meeting. Playing Jan Jagla in the low post while guarded by the shorter Deron Williams was one example of a counter move from the first game. There were others as well.

Illinois is hungry for a championship, but were we more hungry than Penn State for a victory at State College? We can hope so, but Illini hunger was undoubtedly less extreme given the ease with which we won the first encounter. It is human nature to be less intense toward an opponent if you don't respect the challenge it represents.

Frankly, I thought the Illini did not take PSU lightly last Saturday, and this is probably why they won. But there is no way the Illini appeared as focused or as energized as they had against Wisconsin and especially Michigan State. This was highly predictable, and I don't think we can fault individual players or coaches for this, win or lose. It just happens that way.

All our remaining road opponents have great incentive to beat us. Iowa is fighting for an NCAA birth, an improvement to their frustrating season, and a defeat of a hated enemy who beat them the first time. Illinois has historically fared poorly at Iowa. I can remember in 1969 the home to away point differential was 50, with Illinois winning by 29 at home and losing by 21 at Iowa. The truth defies statistics.

Purdue is also fighting for its postseason position, and it wants to see the teacher Keady defeat the student Weber. Even if Purdue fans still like Bruce Weber, they have great incentive to beat us. It might not rank with their defeat of Duke, but a victory over the Illini would give them bragging rights for another year. And we can never overlook Ohio State, also playing for pride and for their seniors in their last home game. Their program needs victories badly, and Coach O'Brien is too good not to get them sky high to beat us.

Life is never dull and always a challenge on the road. Imagine we are the red-coated British, with our vaunted armies, standing exposed in a field waiting for the Minuteman colonists to come out from behind the trees and fight us mano a mano in the clearing. We would like that because we are good at that. But our opponents, on their home field, don't want us to win. So like the underdog colonists, don't be surprised if we discover our opponents shooting at us from behind the trees and rocks. After all, they want to win as badly as us even if we do happen to have superior manpower. They are willing to do whatever is necessary to reverse the odds to their favor.

I am not trying to throw water on our enthusiasm for this season. But I do hope to encourage some degree of tolerance and understanding should the Illini slip up a time or two on the road. Winning all these away game would be quite a feat, perhaps one for the history books, regardless of the collective RPI of our opponents. We should, in my opinion, recognize the reality of the challenge before us before expecting our fine team to win every game home or away. It is difficult to do. Otherwise, everyone would be doing it.

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